Economic Inequality and Populism

Nat O'Connor09/06/2017

On 31 May, I delivered a paper on economic inequality and the rise of populism at the RIA's annual international affairs conference (Retreat from Globalisation? Brexit, Trump and the New Populism).

For those focused on the rise of economic inequality, it seems obvious that this must have major political ramifications. The dislocations brought on by changes in the economy—not least many people's experience of losing the hope of a good quality job for life—has led many more people to feel economically insecure.

Yet, the conventional wisdom on the rise of populist nativism—that's nationalism mixed with xenophobia—points to non-economic factors as being more important. Nativists are seen to do better in elections when socio-cultural rather than socio-economic factors are at play. Clearly, the votes for Brexit and Trump also involved issues like nostalgia for the past, national identity, desire for a strong uncompromising leadership and national self-determination, and so on. Xenophobia and racism also cannot be explained in primarily economic terms.

My analysis accepts that non-economic factors have a particularly importance for explaining the rise of nativism. Moreover, certain tendencies—like a populist preference for authority over liberty—are important for explaining all types of populism, not just nativism. I am working with a categorisation that distinguishes between 'pure' populists, who hold a majoritarian view of the will of 'the people' and who see the people as pitted against a 'corrupt elite'. Populist nativists add xenophobia to this foundation, and want to reserve the state for 'natives' and expel 'foreign' people and ideas (including, in some case, long-established minorities). Populist fundamentalist socialists also build on the 'pure' populist foundation, but are much more focused on economic inequality and a desire to not only replace the existing political establishment but to replace capitalism.

Bearing in mind that not all populism is nativist, I have identified three ways through which economic inequality seems likely to contribute to the rise of populism.

Firstly, there is evidence that economic inequality leads to more frequent and more intense economic crises. In turn, major crises cause political allegiances to 'unfreeze' as voters are sensitive to how the crisis has impacted upon their lives. If political movements mobilise along the newly raw 'cleavages' in society—which might be socio-economic, cultural, geographical or whatever—this can help them to win electoral support. Crucially, any major crisis opens up the political opportunity to mobilise along any cleavages. An economic crisis is not limited to only opening up mobilisation along economic cleavages. And, from their rhetoric, there is evidence that populist nativists have used the crisis to mobilise along ethnic or religion divides.

Secondly, extreme economic inequality should be hard for any democratic political party to defend. To the extent that existing political elites fail or refuse to curtail excessive wealth and power, they lose democratic legitimacy. Populists often make this claim, which reinforces their general anti-establishment narrative, as they try to claim the mantle of democratic legitimacy for themselves. Populist socialists go further, by seeking to identify 'the people' with the Occupy narrative of 'the 99%' versus capitalists identified as 'the 1%'.

Thirdly, based on my own research into the lived experience of inequality, I argue that a more holistic view of economic inequality as the distribution of net economic benefits provides deeper insights into the losses experienced by many households. For example, many households have maintained their income, but only through working longer hours and having less time for parenting or care duties, while also seeing their public services decline and (in many cases) taking on debt. President Trump, while campaigning, spoke about the 'forgotten men and women of America', and although Marine Le Pen lost the second round of the French Presidential election, the two areas where she polled over half the vote were in the ex-industrial north. There is systematic evidence that shows populist movements have sought to expand their electoral appeal by mobilising along some of the socio-economic divide.

However, nativists are not usually concerned with economic inequality per se, but with lost prosperity among certain 'native' groups. For example, nativists will argue for state intervention in the economy or stronger welfare for natives, while also arguing for the withdrawal of benefits from 'others'. Changes in the economy have brought with them many social and cultural changes. Most West European economies now have large populations of migrant workers, which may bring with them different religion or ethnicity. Populist nativists argue that lost econoimc prosperity could be restored if jobs and other economic benefits were taken from 'others' and given to 'natives'. Nativists also often engage in 'welfare chauvinism', which is to claim that 'others' unfairly or disproportionately benefit from welfare.

Sadly, it seems that economic inequality has been successfully used by nativists in many countries to make electoral gains. Rather than blame something as abstact as the current version of market capitalism, some voters may find it easier to blame 'others' and to imagine that a strong leader will rebalance the economy in favour of 'natives'.

Although xenophobia will repel some voters who otherwise agree with a party's economic policies, some populist nativist movements have become more adept at weaving together a narrative that combines both economic and nativist messages. There is also a risk that if populists get into power and their (often simplistic or exaggerated) economic promises fail, the blame will be placed squarely on 'others': foreigners, migrants and minorities. For example, the Brexit campaign successfully blamed 'Brussels' and the EU for many domestic policies. And President Trump has set out to blame other countries for the USA's trade deficit. If the economic situation worsens in the USA, will that accelerate calls to root out undocumented migrants and to block immigration?

Posted in: BrexitEconomicsInequalityPolitics

Tagged with: populism

Dr Nat O'Connor     @natpolicy

Nat O'Connor

Nat O’Connor is a member of the Institute for Research in Social Sciences (IRiSS) and a Lecturer of Public Policy and Public Management in the School of Criminology, Politics and Social Policy at Ulster University.

Previously Director of TASC, Nat also led the research team in Dublin’s Homeless Agency.

Nat holds a PhD in Political Science from Trinity College Dublin (2008) and an MA in Political Science and Social Policy form the University of Dundee (1998). Nat’s primary research interest is in how research-informed public policy can achieve social justice and human wellbeing. Nat’s work has focused on economic inequality, housing and homelessness, democratic accountability and public policy analysis. His PhD focused on public access to information as part of democratic policy making.


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